A very popular believe in sports is that in order to get maximum effect of caffeine in competition you need to withdraw from caffeine in the days or even weeks leading up to it. The theory is quite attractive, because it seems to make sense that some caffeine habituation will take place. It is believed that non coffee drinkers or those that drink very little coffee will benefit more from caffeine. However, a study in the Journal of Applied Physiology appeared recently that seems to dispel this myth (1).
The study performed at the University of São Paulo in Brazil used a double-blind, crossover, counterbalanced design. Forty male endurance-trained cyclists were allocated into groups according to their daily caffeine intake:
Low (58 ± 29 mg/d or approximately 1 small cup of coffee), moderate (143 ± 25 mg/d or roughly 2-3 cups of coffee), and high consumers (351 ± 139 mg/d or roughly 5 cups of coffee per day). Participants performed 3 time trials (lasting approximately 30min) each before which they ingested a moderate dose of caffeine (CAF: 6 mg/kg body weight), placebo (PLA), or no supplement (CON). Caffeine and placebo were administered in capsules and ingested 1h before the start of the time trial.
Caffeine supplementation improved exercise performance by 3.3% compared to CON and 2.4% compared to PLA. These data are comparable with other caffeine studies. More importantly, performance benefits with acute caffeine supplementation during a ~30 min cycling time trial were not different between the groups with low, medium or high habitual caffeine intake. In other words: caffeine worked equally for everyone, low users, medium users as well as high users.
It is always important to discuss single studies in the context of the existing evidence, because one study does not necessarily mean that our views should change. Recently there was a well performed study (2) that suggested that 4 weeks of caffeine supplementation diminished performance benefits of acute caffeine supplementation in low habitual caffeine consumers (< 42 75 mg/d). However, giving low habitual users caffeine for 4 weeks, may be quite different from a habitual, high intake. The study can also not exclude the possibility that high habitual users can still benefit from caffeine. Finally, it does also not mean that refraining from caffeine products will increase the effects of caffeine.
Athletes are often encouraged to refrain from caffeinated products for up to 4 days before supplementing with caffeine to enhance the efficacy of acute supplementation. Despite this, a study by Irwin, et al (3). showed similar improvements in exercise with caffeine in habitual consumers regardless of a 4 day withdrawal period. Another study by Van Soeren, et al. (4) (the first study that directly addressed this question) showed equal exercise improvements with acute caffeine supplementation in habituated consumers after no, 2-days and 4-days of caffeine withdrawal. In a study we performed many years ago, I remember the observation that the largest performance improvements with caffeine were actually observed in the athletes with the higher caffeine intakes. We did not publish those findings because the number of subjects was probably too small to make firm statements, but the observation is interesting nonetheless.
Thus, it is fair to conclude that the balance of evidence suggests that caffeine withdrawal to get a better effect of caffeine is a myth. The recommendation from us is therefore to maintain your normal caffeine consumption during the preparation for your competition. You will still be able to benefit from the effects of caffeine in competition, and you will avoid any possible withdrawal symptoms in the days before.
L. de Souza Gonçalves, V. de Salles Painelli, G. Yamaguchi, L. Farias de Oliveira, B. Saunders, R. Pires da Silva, E. Maciel, G.G. Artioli, H. Roschel, B. Gualano. Dispelling the myth that habitual caffeine consumption influences the performance response to acute caffeine supplementation. Journal of Applied Physiology, in press.
Beaumont R, Cordery P, Funnell M, Mears S, James L, and Watson P. Chronic ingestion of a low dose of caffeine induces tolerance to the performance benefits of caffeine. Journal of Sports Sciences 1-8, 2016.
Irwin C, Desbrow B, Ellis A, O'Keeffe B, Grant G, and Leveritt M. Caffeine withdrawal and high-intensity endurance cycling performance. Journal of Sports Sciences 29: 509-515, 2011.
Van Soeren MH, and Graham TE. Effect of caffeine on metabolism, exercise endurance, and catecholamine responses after withdrawal. Journal of Applied Physiology 85: 1493-1501, 1998.